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Wide Angle 18.3 (1996) 1-21

Spectacular History as an Ocular Discipline

Christopher Kent


Such is the power of the cinema and the photographic image as the paradigm for visual realism in our own time--though its analogical mode is now being at once dissolved into, and challenged by, the more compressible and manipulable digital mode of electronic information--that the temptation to approach the development of the visual arts in the nineteenth century in terms of a narrative of photography's precursors and competitors still exerts considerable pressure on the agenda of scholarship. Recent work such as Jonathan Crary's and Martin Jay's reminds us of the intellectual advantages of trying to break out of, or at least re-orient, the visual metaphors and ocularcentric mental constructs that have so powerfully shaped our notions of reality.

Crary has suggested that the privileged place of photography in the history of visual realism should be challenged. Photography certainly cashed in on the tradition of realism extending back through the optical technology of the camera obscura, according to which an unmediated image of the visually true--as defined by the prevailing scientific and social discourses--is reproduced for the edification of a passive, immobile, individual observer. However that passive, immobile observer, a necessary construct for this paradigm of visual realism, was being joined, and even challenged in the nineteenth century by a more active observer who lived in a new continuum of space and time. For this observer, a hundred miles distance no longer equalled over a day's travel; he watched space rush past the railway train window, and millennia [End Page 1] when the train flashed through the stratifications revealed by a railway cutting; she saw thousands of miles collapse into seconds in the transmission of a telegraph message. This observer was more active as well in the sense that optical science was shifting emphasis from geometry to physiology, and studying how the eye and mind mediated and produced visual experience through such phenomena as the persistence of vision, binocular vision, and non-normal vision which of course necessitated the construction of visual normality. New knowledge created new power and new opportunities for managing the active observer and disciplining the observing eye. It also created new definitions of visual realism which, contrary to the apodictic truth claims of the camera obscura's image, depended on deception and even falsehood. Needless to say, it also created new ways of making money out of the creation and management of mass visual experience--the spectacle. 1

An important site for the practical working out of these developments was the theater. Though the term "audience" for its consumers grants privilege to the auditory sense, the tendency of the nineteenth-century theater was to turn them primarily into spectators, or more precisely, observers, in Crary's sense that they observed certain rules and practices and saw "within a prescribed set of possibilities." 2 The visual pictorial aesthetic triumphed over the aural, and an important reason for this victory must be the greater degree of innovation in the technology of the visual, above all in the production and control of artificial light. Gas lighting, which swept into the major theaters in the first decades of the century, enabled the stage to be bathed in light to its full height and depth. As scenery could be more effectively illuminated, it was foregrounded at the expense of the actors with whom it competed for attention. Actors, who had long played at the front of the stage where the only effective illumination, chiefly the footlights, was to be found, could now be pulled back into the set. The stage apron shrank in size and by the end of the century virtually disappeared in the newest theaters, as everything now took place firmly within and behind the picture-frame proscenium. More gradually, [End Page 2] and against considerable resistance from the consumers, the lighting in the auditorium was dimmed to force their concentrated attention onto the performance taking place on the brightly lit stage and away from the rival, social performance of their fellow members...

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